Our production of The Merchant of Venice makes some bold choices in its setting (the Jazz Age), its conclusion (immediately following the trial), and its costuming (with most of the characters en masque). Director Jonathan Dietrich has shared some of his thoughts behind those choices with us.
The concept of a "masked Merchant" has been echoing around inside my skull for many years. Right from the start I had planned on cutting the fifth act. This removes the light, comedic ending, with the ring plot and the marriages, and instead ends the show with the forced conversion of Shylock. I had the image of him on his knees, donning a mask so that he would appear masked like all of the Christians in the show.
The masks would function to separate the Christians from the "other". The idea is that by masking the Christians, it would make them harder for the audience to empathize with or relate to. All of their acting would have to be bigger and less naturalistic. The non-Christian characters would be without mask, and able to have a more naturalistic performance making it easier for the audience to empathize and identify with aspects of these characters. The other thing the masks provide is some insulation to the players from their characters. It can be difficult for an actor to play a character that is intolerant and cruel to others. The mask separates the player from the character and can make it easier to play the cruelty of the character.
This was all only a seed of an idea until Tom Nagy and I spoke at a mutual friend's birthday party. Tom suggested it would be great to do some kind of collaboration between the Jazz Room and KWLT. This was perfect. Not only could this production end up with a score(!) but also at this point I did not have a time and place set for Merchant and the Jazz Age was a great inspiration. By setting the production in the 30's we are able to use Art Deco styling for the city of "Venice" and Art Nouveau for the country side of "Belmont".
I want to thank everyone in the community for their help putting this production together. It has been a lot of work and I think we have built something special and worthwhile. Enjoy the show.